GARDENING / Lost in the concrete jungle: Large, gracious trees were once the glory of Britain's cities. Today, as these photographs reveal, even little ornamentals are finding growing hard going. Helen Chappell reports

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The Independent Culture
TREES in towns ought to look lush and elegant - rows of limes setting off the lines of white Georgian stucco, plate-glass boulevards lined with flossy whitebeams. Majestic horse chestnuts should shade you in your local park, rustling silver birches and willows help you forget you are marooned in drab suburbia. Just lately, though, you may have started to feel a shade uneasy on the street. Why has that plane tree lost most of its branches, leaving it with ugly, sawn-off stumps? Whose bright idea was it to plant a lone, sickly sapling in a desert of concrete at the drive- through discount warehouse? There are so many squashed Coke cans and tattered plastic bags caught in the branches of many city trees that it's hard to tell whether they are alive or dead. Is it sentimental or paranoid to suspect that leafiness in towns is under threat?

Not according to David Goode, chairman of the Tree Council. 'We need to restore civic pride in many of our towns,' he says, 'and trees are a good place to start.' He is worried that we are the in danger of losing the garden-city ideal and the big, stately boulevard trees planted by the Victorians. With those we already have now starting to show their age, will they be replaced or will the towns of the future be full of mean streets with mean, tatty trees? His fears are echoed in a recent Department of Environment report, Trees In Towns: 'Unless local authorities draw up long- term strategies, the urban treescape will change dramatically . . . as the legacy of mature broad- leaved trees die.'

But instead of thinking big about trees, it seems today's cash-starved councils prefer to think small. No more stately oaks or spreading chestnuts - the town tree of the Nineties is a neat, waif-like specimen calculated to cause as little trouble as possible. Mountain ash, ornamental plum, cherry and crab apples are not only smaller and cheaper, they have frugal appetites for food and water compared to past giants. 'Prissy little lollipop trees won't grow beyond the rooftops, so they are very popular,' says Russell Ball, coordinator of the London Tree Officers Association. 'But even where big trees would cause no problems, they aren't being planted. Even in business parks and on traffic roundabouts, councils stick in a few small ornamentals. Why not a great big tulip tree, oak or cedar which would grow 90ft tall and be enjoyed for miles?' Even today's lollipop trees might be better than nothing if they were allowed to grow up strong and healthy. But official neglect and unofficial vandalism take a heavy toll. Figures from the Alice Holt Research Station have shown that a third of these 'amenity trees' are dead within two years. Threats to their survival are now so numerous it's a wonder any make it at all: poor, compacted soil, artificially high temperatures radiating off tarmac and grass, drought stress, overdoses of herbicide and de-icing salt, constricting ties which are not removed, strimmer and mower damage, butchery from cowboy tree surgeons, leakage from gas and sewage pipes which kill roots, deliberate vandalism (branch snapping, poisoning, ring barking), traffic pollution and injury from cars. 'Some motorist will always plough into a tree at Christmas or New Year's Eve,' reports Alan Barber, green space consultant and retired parks manager for Bristol City Council. 'Nowadays, everything gives way to traffic.'

New road-building schemes planned by the Government pose a real threat to established trees, in his opinion. Extra motorways to the tune of pounds 23bn could alter the water table and kill urban trees slowly but surely. New shops and office developments cause more problems. Councils find trees a nuisance when laying or repairing gas and water pipes, installing electricity, phone lines and cable TV. And, while there may be a glowing write-up in the local press for the latest tree-planting blitz, aftercare is often too expensive to keep up. 'Once the silver spade of the mayor has gone,' Russell Ball says, 'the tree is left to die at the stake, strangled and unwatered.'

If urban trees are so difficult and demanding today, why do we need them at all? Perhaps a bolder post-modern policy would be to dig the whole lot up and admit that towns (where 70 per cent of us now live) are artificial places through and through.

According to Alan Barber, however, it is not that simple. Town-dwellers would choke, boil, go deaf (and quite possibly mad) without the soothing, purifying effect of trees. 'Each year a mature tree produces enough oxygen for 10 people,' he points out, 'as well as locking up greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and freshening the air.' Trees keep temperatures down in summer, provide homes for wildlife and dampen the din of traffic and industry.

'There's a basic human need for a sense of greenery,' David Goode says. 'Visitors to Britain love them and research shows that this link to the natural world reduces the pyschological pressures of modern life.'

While we may whinge a bit about falling leaves and fruit, hay fever and brown-tail moth, most town-dwellers love trees. 'People get attached to the trees in their street, especially if they have grown up together,' Russell Ball says. 'They watch them change with the seasons and use them as a living calendar. Perhaps we see them as father or mother figures, strong and tolerant.' Threaten to destroy some of these emotional symbols and there may be a mass outcry. Hundreds of local people staged a protest at Walthamstow in London in November where a new spur to the M11 motorway was due to be built. They made a house up in the branches of one of the condemned trees and lived there day and night until police finally moved them on. 'In another London borough a vandal had been snapping off young trees at the stake,' recalls Russell Ball. 'One resident found out who had done it, stormed round to his house and broke his arm, saying: 'How do you like it?' '

But tree-lovers can't do everything. Many urban authorities now prefer to plant their tree quota in the gardens of new estates and expect private gardeners to look after them.

Tree Protection Orders may prevent the gardener from getting out of unwanted responsibility but this doesn't solve the problem. While 80 per cent of urban trees are in private hands, local councils should never underestimate the need for visible trees in our streets and squares.

Moribund saplings sprouting from the concrete and clusters of Leyland cypress in back gardens (the most common urban tree of all) are no substitute for the lifeenhancing leafiness we have inherited from the past. Plane trees in Berkeley Square have survived for the last two centuries, the Domesday Oak in Bristol is 700 years old, yew trees in Barnet date from prehistory.

'The trees people want are like those in fairy tales: big, old and gnarled,' Alan Barber says. 'It takes a long time for them to get that way. There are no short cuts.'

'Trees In Towns - A Survey of Trees in 66 Towns and Villages in England', Department of Environment, 1993 (HMSO, pounds 12); The Tree Council, 35 Belgrave Square, London SWIX 8QN